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China-US Climate Change Relations Should Move from Cooperation to Co-progress

Mar 04, 2011
  • Yu Hongyuan

    Research Fellow, Shanghai Institutes for Int'l Studies

Climate change presents the world with massive and potentially devastating challenges. As the world’s two leading economic powerhouses, China and the United States are jointly responsible for nearly 40% of global carbon emissions. Consequently, both countries are central to any successful global effort to mitigate climate change. The international community attributes the incremental progress successes at the Copenhagen and Cancun climate conferences to enhanced cooperation between China and the United States. As the international society works to build effective global climate change governance during the forthcoming 2011 Durban Climate Change Conference, it’s time to improve China-US climate cooperation to a situation of co-progress.

I. The Common Climate Values of China and the US

Ecologically speaking, China and the United States are among the countries that will suffer the worst effects of climate change, and both “view climate change and energy security as two of the greatest challenges of our time” as stated in their leader’s joint statement in January 2011. Just before the Copenhagen Climate Change Conference, President Hu Jintao addressed the 2009 UN Climate Summit and said, “Climate change is one of the serious challenges to the survival and development of mankind.” China’s 2008 White Paper on Climate Change stated that, “China is vulnerable to the adverse effects of climate change, like droughts, disruptive storms, and inundation of coastal zones and decreased agricultural production.” The US National Intelligence Council (NIC) concluded in 2008 that, “Climate change will have wide-ranging implications for national security interests over the next 20 years, including destructive storm activity, increased water scarcity, reduced agricultural yields, disease and pandemics, mass migration, increased conflict and destabilized states”. During his remarks on the Cancun Climate Conference, President Obama asserted that, “No nation, however large or small, wealthy or poor, can escape the impact of climate change.”

Economically speaking, China and the United States both face unprecedented opportunities to shift the traditional economic mode to low carbon development associated with mitigating climate change. President Hu Jintao recently encouraged low carbon growth to the  2010 APEC Summit; China’s National People’s Congress passed the “Renewable Energy Law”; before the Copenhagen Convention China set the goal that, by 2020, carbon emission intensity per unit of GDP will be reduced by 40% – 45% compared to that in 2005; and Shanghai Expo 2010 took low carbon as its core theme. In his 2011 State of the Union address, President Obama announced a target of generating 80% of electricity from clean energy sources by 2035 (presently it is less than 40%) and become the first country to have a million electric vehicles on the road by 2015.

Politically speaking, global climate change governance needs the full engagement of China and the United States. The United States, the world’s largest carbon emitter, is not a member of the Kyoto Protocol and even opposes the Kyoto regime with Japan and Russia. As the main global energy organization, the International Energy Agency (IEA) doesn’t include China as a full member. Global governance on climate change is notably becoming more and more fragmented: the divergences among developing countries, particularly on emissions targets and timetables, are becoming larger, while the inherent conflicts on the Kyoto Protocol between the umbrella group (Japan, Russsia, and the US) and the EU continue to reduce the Kyoto regime’s effectiveness. Concurrently, the climate change governance landscape is evolving and there are new mechanisms such as the G20 and WTO that will replace to some extent the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC).

II. Cooperation and Co-progress between China and US

As discussed above, the United States and China are both prioritizing the issue of climate change and low carbon growth, As US Secretary of Energy Steven Chu has pointed out, both countries have a chance to lead the world in solutions on climate change. Thus we should improve China-US cooperation to a position of co-progress in three ways: Global Accountability, Win-Win Cooperation, and Co-progressive Collaboration:

China and the United States should demonstrate their global accountability and take all-round diplomatic efforts to make a breakthrough at the Durban Climate Conference. At the Cancun Climate Conference, it was resolved that any decisions on the future of the Kyoto Protocol will be deferred until Durban, particularly the global goal for substantially reducing global emissions by 2050, and the implementing the regime for financial, technological and capacity-building support to developing countries. To begin with, China and the United States can help to work out the unequivocal commitments on global emission vision associated with common but differentiated principle(s), and they also should shift global attention from mitigation to adaptation measures – to cope with climate change by technology and market measures – which are the preferred ways to address climate-induced social economic impacts.

China and the United States both face unprecedented extensive business opportunities for win-win cooperation. The burgeoning new energy and low carbon business will create a carbon economy worth thousands of billions of dollars. In his 2011 State of the Union address, President Obama maintained clean energy issues as a high priority for his administration which has been associated with jobs, competitiveness and the future. China will spend $293 billion in clean and alternative energy investment before 2020, and the clean energy market will likely amount to $555 billion in 2020. In cooperation with China – the largest global market – the US can certainly achieve economic growth and enhanced competitiveness. Coal made up about 70% of China’s electricity generation over the past year. In the clean coal area, GE and the Chinese company Shenhua have signed a joint venture agreement on coal-gasification technology. Since 2006, China’s installed capacity of wind power has doubled over the past four consecutive years and brings extensive market business. In January 2011, American UPC Renewables and China Guodian signed an agreement on wind-power projects in China involving about $1 billion in investment. In 2010, China planned to start construction of more than 20 nuclear power generators, accounting for 40% of the world’s installations. During President Hu Jintao’s visit in 2011, Westinghouse Electric and China State Nuclear Power Technology Corp. worked together on AP1000 and AP1400 nuclear power plants.

A low carbon society is both the US and China’s common and progressive vision, and requires both mutual support and concerted action. Clearly, the US economy is built on a consumption-intensive fossil fuel energy infrastructure. China’s economy, however, is also dependent on exported services and goods with extensive energy consumption. US Secretary of Energy Steven Chu stressed that China and the United States consume 15% and 25%, respectively, of global energy supplies, but that “the US consumes about 8 times as much energy as China.” As the leading country in clean energy, the US can share its expertise and experience with China, and help in the transformation and relocation of China’s energy structure in the following areas: energy cutting-edge know-how, fossil fuel efficiency, developing renewable energy, and building carbon markets, technology innovation and green education. It also seems very likely that bilateral regime projects can institutionalize China-US Co- progress, such as a Clean Energy Research Centre, Renewable Energy Partnership, Energy Cooperation Program, and the China-US Ten Year Framework on Energy and Environment Cooperation.

By developing a co-progressive cooperation, both countries will enjoy complementary business advantages, push domestic economic structure reform, and achieve breakthroughs in climate negotiations. Most important of all, both countries can evolve jointly into a low carbon society. Urgent tasks at the Durban Climate Change Conference, such as agreeing to the 2050 global mitigation reduction target and solidifying developed countries’ second commitment period in the Kyoto Protocol offer solutions to a more harmonious relationship between man and nature. Achieving these outcomes should be built on the cooperation and co-progress developed between China and the US. In the long run, clean energy, associated only with technological know-how, will help make the world independent of fossil fuel resources which have contributed to many geo-political wars and conflicts in human history. Global permanent peace can start from China-US co-progress on climate change and low carbon.

Yu Hongyuan is an associate professor and deputy director of the Department of International Organizations and Laws at the Shanghai Institutes for International Studies.

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